Watching this weekend’s AFC and NFC Championship games, one thing became glaringly apparent: I may need therapy. I had a doomsday complex that, much like a hangover after a night at Toad’s, was sticking with me all day Sunday. I mostly kept it in check last Sunday, but during the third quarter of the Patriots-Steelers game, it was clear that despite the World Series ring, the Red Sox fan in me is far from being at peace.
With 6:47 left on the game clock and the Patriots up 34-20, I was a nervous wreck. I could barely crack a smile when Vinatieri hit a routine 31-yard field goal. I’m forever a believer in the abilities of the underdog and in my mind it would not be improbable for the hungry Steelers to make a quick interception, run it back for a touchdown and suddenly be looking at a one-touchdown deficit — not to mention they would have plenty of time and energy to go around. It was only when Deion Branch’s Dante Hall-esque 23-yard touchdown run made the score 41-20 that I finally smiled.
I suppose more than being a sign of my need for a psychiatric evaluation, my tenseness (not to mention, chronic Francona-style rocking) was really more of a tribute to the heart that the Steelers displayed. The 24-3 halftime score perfectly mirrored that of the Oct. 31 game when the teams previously met. It was a chilling reminder that, even though the Patriots went on to lose that game, the second half was much closer than the 34-20 final score indicated. If the Patriots could close the gap in a regular season match-up, a 16-1 team like the Steelers could definitely do it in a playoff game — which is exactly what they did. Funny how that works. The Patriots managed to do what has made them the great team they are and get the job done, but I was nonetheless impressed with Pittsburgh’s ability to take control back, at least for the third quarter. Too bad their fans didn’t stick around in the stands to watch most of it. I’d like to see a breakdown of what percentage of remaining fans in Heinz Stadium were Pats fans.
Last week, I wrote about how out of the eight teams that made it to the divisional round of the playoffs, only two played like complete teams. I, of course, was referring to the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles. Well, neither team disappointed this weekend and neither did their fans. Watching the Eagles win their game was pretty satisfying as well. Both Vick and McNabb are likeable enough guys, but (and I’m sure I’m about to piss some people off) Eagles fans are overwhelmingly of the more die-hard variety. They remind me of New England fans, which is partly why I was so happy to see their team do well; not to mention, I get a whole ‘nother game to see clips of Mrs. McNabb frosted in platinum Eagles gear (afforded by her Campbell’s Chunky Soup royalties no less). To paraphrase what my friend Corinne said two nights before the Brookline High Prom, Mrs. McNabb is sure to be “bling-blinging all over the place” for the Super Bowl.
Speaking of great sights, there were some pretty great hits in both games that deserve mentioning. First off, hats off to the Eagles’ security team for their lone hit of the game. I wish the networks could focus more on fun things like crazy people sprinting onto the field without having to worry about encouraging every show-boating-wanna-be nut to go run out on the field as well. It’s really too bad considering how well the Eagles’ security guy laid out the run-away fan. Of course, he may have taken a tip from Eagles defensive tackle Hollis Thomas, who slammed Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler on Atlanta’s only touchdown drive of the game. To Crumpler’s credit, he miraculously held onto the 31-yard reception. But, even without forcing a fumble, Thomas’ hit showed that touchdown or not, the Eagles were going to keep control of the game.
On the AFC side of things, the anticipated grudge match between arguably the league’s most physical teams was relatively grudgeless. But it was not without its moments. Rodney Harrison’s interception that resulted in an 87-yard run for a touchdown was a moment in itself. But it wasn’t enough for Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel. Vrabel added his two cents when he rammed Roethlisberger as the rookie QB made a last-ditch attempt to fix the mess he’d made by throwing the interception. The sight of Vrabel taking down Roethlisberger after it was clear Harrison had evaded him was priceless and, much like the Hollis Thomas hit, added to the momentum the Patriots had already generated.
So now it’s two weeks until the Super Bowl. The Vegas line was already at six points as of Sunday night and my mom — paranoid when it comes to the Red Sox, Randy Moss-level confidence when it comes to the Patriots — was already certain during half-time of the AFC Championship that the Patriots would win the Super Bowl “next weekend.” I pointed out that wasn’t very accurate, and she told me to stop worrying, that the Patriots would be fine “next weekend.” I pointed out I was referring to her accuracy on the date of the Super Bowl and that it was two weeks away, not one. Her response: “Oh whatever, those Patriots will get it done no matter when they play!” Personally, the Sox fan in me can’t help but be reminded of how the Patriots were viewed in 2001 in the week leading up to them playing the Rams and then what they subsequently did to them. But then again, the unflappable duo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick has worked wonders on my fragile sports psyche, so I guess it was pretty safe of me and track coach Mark Young to accept a bet from my friend Julia Pudlin’s Eagles-happy dad this morning.